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Home > Cats > How Good is a Cat’s Sense of Smell? Facts & Comparisons

How Good is a Cat’s Sense of Smell? Facts & Comparisons

cat nose

Cats are amazing creatures. They are independent, yet social. They are loving, yet sometimes aloof. They are one of the most popular pets in the world, and they have some pretty incredible abilities. One of the things that make cats so special is their heightened senses. Cats have excellent hearing, vision, and sense of touch, and each of these senses helps cats to survive in the wild and to thrive as pets. Among the most celebrated of feline abilities is their highly regarded sense of smell. But just how powerful is a cat’s nose?

The nose helps the cat smell its food, identify other cats, and even find its way home. Some say that a cat’s sense of smell is so strong that they can even detect health problems in other animals. But just how good is a cat’s sense of smell? Can cats smell better than humans? If you are interested in knowing the truth about a cat’s keen nose, then continue reading to learn all about it. Cats have a strong sense of smell, but there is no current evidence that it’s better than our own.

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Can Cats Smell Better Than Humans or Other Animals?

When it comes to the question of who has the better sense of smell, cats or humans, the answer is not as clear-cut as you might think. The received notion is that cats are inherently better smellers and that their advantage is enormous. This theory has faced some major challenges in the past decade. While it is true that cats devote more of their overall brains to detecting scent than humans, this does not necessarily mean that they are always better at smelling than humans or other animals. Let’s take a look at the science to try to work out what may be going on.

orange tabby cat smelling a plant
Image By: Christian Lendl, Unsplash

The Relative Size of the Olfactory Epithelium

There are several factors that come into play when determining how well an animal can smell. One of the most important criteria for the established theories on comparative smelling ability is the relative size of the olfactory epithelium. The olfactory epithelium of cats is larger than that of humans. Many people have taken this to mean that cats are more sensitive to smell than people are.

The olfactory epithelium is a layer of specialized cells located in the nose that is responsible for detecting odors and is made up of three types of cells: olfactory receptor neurons, supporting cells, and basal cells.

The Number of Olfactory Receptor Neurons

Another neuroanatomical measure that is used to theorize that cats smell better than humans is the number of a particular animal’s olfactory receptor neurons. These are the cells in the nose that are sensitive to odors. These neurons have hair-like projections called cilia that extend into the airway. When odor molecules bind to the cilia, they stimulate the olfactory receptor neuron, which sends a signal to the brain. The olfactory receptor neuron is part of a complex system that helps animals identify smells. This system includes not only the nose but also the brain. The olfactory system is important for many reasons, including giving animals and humans the ability to enjoy food and avoid danger.

Let’s look at a chart comparing the number of olfactory receptors in animals and humans:

Species Number of Olfactory Receptor Neurons
Humans 10–20 million
Dogs 2 billion
Cats 67 million

In this comparison of cats, dogs, and humans, we can see that humans have the lowest number of olfactory receptor neurons at 10–20 million, dogs have the highest at 2 billion, and cats have 57 million olfactory receptor neurons. But does this automatically mean that cats have a less developed sense of smell than dogs and a more developed sense of smell than humans? Do cats have a better sense of smell than dogs overall?

cat smelling tulips at the garden
Image Credit: Georg Schober, Pixabay

Is a Cat’s Sense of Smell Measurably Better?

According to all traditional wisdom—and a great number of scientific theories—cats and other animals have a better sense of smell than humans. However, this view is mainly based on the interpretation of neuroanatomical findings when comparing the size of the brains and olfactory organs between humans and other animals. In fact, the concept that larger olfactory bulbs increase the sense of smell based solely on size is not supported by science.

Is There Evidence to Show Cats Have a Stronger Sense of Smell?

There is no actual evidence supporting that a cat’s sense of smell is significantly more powerful than ours from a physiological or behavioral perspective. Neuroscientist John McGann at Rutgers University in New Jersey says that humans have just as good a sense of smell as rodents and dogs. If that is the case, we might cautiously extrapolate that humans may smell about as well as cats do. At this point, extrapolating is all we can do, as frustratingly, while results have been gathered to compare the functional smelling abilities of humans and a large number of other animals, including monkeys, mice, rats, bats, dogs, sea otters, pigs, shrews, rabbits, and seals, the relative functional smelling abilities of cats have not yet been studied.

That being said, numerous studies now suggest that humans have a much better sense of smell than previously believed and that olfaction plays a significant role in influencing a wide variety of human behaviors.

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Conclusion

In conclusion, until the cat’s sense of smell is directly tested in laboratory conditions, we cannot say how strong their sense of smell is. The old methods of comparing relative anatomy simply don’t hold up. So, for now, while we wait for science to investigate further, we may cautiously summarize that the differences between our relative smelling abilities and theirs may not be as great as previously believed. More research needs to be done in order to get an accurate understanding of a cat’s sense of smell because the received wisdom is woefully out of date.


Featured Image Credit: miezekieze, Pixabay

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